5 Biggest Areas of Concern for the Packers Heading into Training Camp
When one reflects on the 2013 NFL season that the Green Bay Packers had, it was definitely a hills-and-valley type of year throughout the season. When it was all said and done, the team finished 8-7-1 and won the NFC North.
That was somewhat hard to fathom, as the Packers looked to be out of any playoff consideration after Week 13 when the Lions thrashed them on Thanksgiving, 40-10. At that point the Packers were 5-6-1. The Lions were 7-5 and looked to be the favorites to win the division.
But a funny thing happened. The Lions went 0-4 down the stretch, while the Packers won three of their last four games, including the Week 17 battle against the Bears in Chicago. That victory gave the Packers the division title.
The Packers started slow in their Wild Card Round game against the 49ers, but the team hung tough and played hard as San Francisco ended up winning on a last-second field goal at frigid Lambeau Field.
Bottom line, the Packers overcame a lot of adversity last season just to make it to the playoffs. There were also a number of other reasons why the team struggled at times as the season wore on as well.
In this slideshow, I'm going to list some of the areas of concern going into the 2014 season that may trouble Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy as training camp will open soon.
Who to Keep and Who to Cut
Ted Thompson has run the front office of the Packers since 2005. After he hired Mike McCarthy to be his head coach in 2006, the team certainly became a draft-and-develop team.
Thompson's modus operandi is to use the NFL draft as the main component into putting together the roster of the Packers. Thompson freely uses "street" free agency, too. By that I mean signing players off the street who were released by other teams or by signing undrafted rookies.
In terms of using "pure" free agency, rarely does Thompson go that route. But when he does, it's worked out pretty well for the Packers. Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett are two examples. Thompson hopes the same type of success will occur in 2014 with the addition of Julius Peppers.
If you look at the current roster heading into training camp in a little over a week, the players on the team reflect Thompson's model of adding players to the team.
Thompson drafted 42 players on the current roster. There are also 43 players on the roster who were signed as "street" free agents or as undrafted rookies.
In addition, Thompson has brought in three other players (Jarrett Bush, John Kuhn and Chris Harper) via waivers.
In my opinion, the current roster that Thompson has assembled is the most talented roster he has ever had in his 10 years with the team as general manager. It will be extremely difficult for the coaches to make some cuts this year to get down to the 53-man roster limit at the end of training camp.
The wide receiver position is a case in point. You would think that the depth at wideout wouldn't be so great after losing both Greg Jennings (free agency) and Donald Driver (retirement) last offseason and James Jones (free agency) this offseason.
But thanks to the depth and talent already on the team (Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Jarrett Boykin), plus adding three more talented receivers (Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis) in the 2014 NFL draft, the Packers are going to have to waive a couple of pretty talented players. If there was ever a year that the Packers would keep six wide receivers on the roster, this is the year.
Having Multiple Injuries Again
Injuries hit the Packers hard in 2013. The Packers had 15 players go on injured reserve last season. In addition, the Packers had a number of players who missed multiple games during the year.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed seven games due to a fractured clavicle. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews missed five games due to a broken thumb. Wide receiver Randall Cobb missed 10 games because of a leg injury. Outside linebacker Nick Perry missed five games due a foot injury. Inside linebacker Brad Jones missed four games due to a hamstring injury.
Speaking of hamstring injuries, the Packers had a number of players besides Jones who were affected by that malady. Safety Morgan Burnett missed the first three games of the season. It was even worse for slot cornerback Casey Hayward, as he played in only three games before he was ultimately placed on injured reserve.
The Packers should have known it was going to be that type of year when offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Family Night scrimmage.
The Packers will do what they can to prevent injuries this summer. A number of the players are currently utilizing yoga to be more flexible. Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote a nice story on that practice about a month ago.
One of the keys to having a successful season is by staying healthy. Yes, the 2010 Green Bay team won Super Bowl XLV when the team also had 15 players on injured reserve, but that is almost an anomaly.
Mike McCarthy was very blunt when he issued a statement about injuries to the media several weeks ago via Packers.com:
"A healthy football team is a good football team."
McCarthy would like to find out if that is true with the 2014 Green Bay Packers.
Production at Both Inside Linebacker Positions
Inside linebacker A.J. Hawk had one of the finest seasons of his career in Green Bay last year, as he had 118 tackles, five sacks, one interception, four passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. No. 50 was also able to play in all 16 regular-season games.
But even with all the success Hawk had last season, he also had some lapses. Some of his tackles occurred well past the line of scrimmage. He also was often a step too late in pass coverage at times.
But it was much worse at the other inside linebacker position, which was shared by Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore. Both players had issues with blown assignments and both had their share of missed tackles, too. Injuries didn't help the effectiveness of either player, but veterans should be able to play better at that point of their NFL careers.
Like they often say in baseball, you have to be strong up the middle defensively to be successful. The same holds true in football. Last season, the Packers were not strong up the middle, whether at nose tackle, inside linebacker or safety.
That has to change in 2014. And maybe it will. The Packers are going to play B.J. Raji exclusively at nose tackle this season. The nose is Raji's best position, which he proved in 2010 with 66 tackles and 6.5 sacks.
The Packers also added talent and depth at the safety position by drafting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft and by moving cornerback Micah Hyde to safety.
The inside linebacker position will be interesting. Hawk needs to play as well as he did last season. The other inside linebacker position has to be much more consistent. Jones will get the first shot to be the starter there, but he will be pushed by Lattimore, as well as second-year linebacker Sam Barrington.
Also, although the Packers are planning to utilize fourth-round draft pick Carl Bradford at outside linebacker at the beginning of camp, don't be surprised if he gets a look inside as well.
Lack of Production from Recent No. 1 Picks
In 2011, the Packers drafted offensive tackle Derek Sherrod in the first round. In 2012, the Packers drafted outside linebacker Nick Perry in the first round. In 2013, the Packers drafted Datone Jones in the first round.
Right now, the Packers have not seen a lot of production from these three players. The biggest reason is due to injuries.
Sherrod suffered a gruesome injury late in his rookie season in 2011.
No. 78 broke his right leg in two places and needed to have two procedures to repair the injury. He missed all of the 2012 season, and though he was featured in seven games in 2013, most of that playing time was spent blocking for extra points and field goals.
Overall, Sherrod has played in 12 games in three years with the Packers with zero starts.
Perry started out slow his rookie season, as he was learning to become an outside linebacker in the NFL, after mostly playing "elephant" defensive end at USC. But with the tutelage of outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene, Perry started to look more comfortable as a rookie.
But knee and wrist injuries derailed his progress and No. 53 ended up with 18 tackles and two sacks before going on injured reserve after just six games. In 2013, Perry looked much better early in the season, when a foot injury hurt his progress in his second season.
The injury cost Perry five games, and he ended up with 28 tackles, four sacks and three forced fumbles.
Jones looked like he would make a major impact for the Packers during the OTAs and the minicamp prior to training camp. No. 95 looked quick and agile and was causing havoc in the trenches. The same held true early in training camp before a sprained ankle in the first preseason game really affected his play.
Jones ended up with just 10 tackles and 3.5 sacks. He also saw his playing time in the defensive line rotation decrease, not increase, at the end of the season.
The bottom line is that Sherrod, Perry and Jones all will have ample opportunity to prove their worth in 2014 for the Packers.
Sherrod is as healthy as he has been since his injury, and he will be given every chance to become the player that the Packers thought he was coming out of Mississippi State as an offensive tackle.
Perry just has to stay healthy. That, plus the fact the the Packers plan to utilize Perry at the "elephant" defensive end position at times this season, bodes well for the former Trojan. The Packers also have a lot of depth at the outside linebacker position, which will also keep players like Perry fresh.
Jones expects to have a major role on the team's defensive line rotation. He has the ability to be a very effective 3-4 defensive end. Ability is one thing. Being productive is another.
Time will tell what will happen with Sherrod, Perry and Jones in 2014, but all will be given a shot to prove their doubters wrong.
That the Defense Plays Much Better Than It Did in 2013
For the Packers to have a real strong season and postseason in 2014, the defense has to get much better.
That is obvious when one looks at the defensive statistics for the Packers at the end of last season. The Packers were 25th in total defense in the NFL (after being ranked 11th after Week 8), as well as 25th in stopping the run and 24th in stopping the pass.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has shown that his defensive strategy is sound when he has the players to execute it. In his first season running the defense in 2009, the Packers finished second in total defense. When the Packers won it all in 2010, the Packers were fifth in total defense.
But things really went south in 2011, when the team finished 32nd in total defense. The defense did improve to be ranked 11th in total defense in 2012, before dropping 14 spots in 2013.
There are a number of reasons why the defense has been so porous the last few years. Injuries seem to be one of the biggest reasons. It's hard to play very effective defense when you have players like Clay Matthews and Casey Hayward missing from the lineup.
But a lot has to do with a lack of fundamentals. The Packers had a number of problems with blown coverages and missed assignments last season. In addition to that, there were too many missed tackles, as well as players taking bad tackling angles at times.
How will this all change in 2014? For one thing, you have to stay healthy. Count me as one person who believes that the Packers would have beaten the 49ers in the postseason last year if the team would have been able to have players like Clay Matthews, Casey Hayward, Mike Neal and Sam Shields available the entire game.
Matthews and Hayward didn't play at all that game, while Neal and Shields were hurt very early in that contest and missed the rest of the game.
The Packers also added some talent through free agency and the draft.
In free agency, the Packers added Julius Peppers and his 118.5 career sacks and 39 career forced fumbles. The team also added defensive lineman Letroy Guion.
In the 2014 draft, the Packers selected safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round, plus added defensive lineman Khyri Thornton, linebacker Carl Bradford and cornerback Demetri Goodson.
Capers and his staff are also becoming a lot more innovative in terms of putting the best players on the field in certain situations.
Micah Hyde has moved to safety. The Packers also have a number of hybrid players who will play the outside linebacker position at times and then play on the defensive line at other junctures of the game. This group will include Peppers, Neal, Nick Perry and perhaps rookie Carl Bradford.
Time will tell, but I'm expecting the defense of the Packers to be much better in 2014. Maybe even as good as being a top-10 defense when it's all said and done.